Determination of the Three-Dimensional Structure of Ferrihydrite Nanoparticle Aggregates

Aggregation impacts the reactivity, colloidal stability, and transport behavior of nanomaterials, yet methods to characterize basic structural features of aggregates are limited. Here, cryo-transmission electron microscope (cryo-TEM) based tomography is utilized as a method for directly imaging fragile aggregates of nanoparticles in aqueous suspension and an approach for extracting quantitative fractal dimensions from the resulting three-dimensional structural models is introduced. The structural quantification approach is based upon the mass autocorrelation function, and is directly comparable with small-angle X-ray scattering (SAXS) models. This enables accurate characterization of aggregate structure, even in suspensions where the aggregate cluster size is highly polydisperse and traditional SAXS modeling is not reliable. This technique is applied to study real suspensions of ferrihydrite nanoparticles. By comparing tomographic measurements with SAXS-based measurements, we infer that certain suspensions contain polydisperse aggregate size distributions. In other suspensions, fractal-type structures are identified with low intrinsic fractal dimensions. The fractal dimensions are lower than would be predicted by simple models of particle aggregation, and this low dimensionality enables large, low-density aggregates to exist in stable colloidal suspension.